See More on Facebook

Opinion, Politics

Stifling the press in Pakistan

Huma Yusuf looks at the deteriorating press situation in Pakistan.


Written by

Updated: January 29, 2019

A “WALKING shadow”. A “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more”. A “tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing”. Shakespeare was describing life. He could as easily have been writing about the state of Pakistan’s media.

On television screens, pundits screech and pontificate. Online, tweets and retweets document righteous fury and differing opinions. On radio, DJs chatter late into the night. In print, columnists fill column inches with feisty words, punctuation serving in place of pounding fists. But this is all noise without substance.

State attempts to control Pakistan’s independent media are near complete. The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, approved by the cabinet last week, is the formal trapping confirming what has long been implicitly known: there is no appetite for press freedom in Pakistan today. The PMRA will bring all media — print, broadcast, digital — under the control of one regulator that will dictate rules, licensing and punitive measures.

The consolidation of media regulation is particularly damaging to print media, historically perceived as the industry’s ‘release valve’, able to publish content that could not be broadcast owing to its limited readership. Beyond the centralisation of control, the PMRA also reeks of authoritarianism because it disregards the concerns of stakeholders such as media associations.

The PMRA seems especially excessive because this campaign has been so effective. A report published last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted the widespread practice of self-censorship, with journalists conceding that they did not comment on no-go issues for fear of being sacked, harassed, killed (notably, journalists’ identified fear of retaliation by militant groups as another driver of self-censorship alongside pressure from state institutions). Against this backdrop, the PMRA will sanction overt censorship, beyond that which is already being done.

The PMRA’s approval should be the fillip that unites the media industry to coordinate its response to this attack on press freedom. The divisiveness within the industry has been a key reason for the state’s success in encroaching on freedoms so far. A first step could be for the independent media to reconsider self-censorship as the prime strategy for dodging strong-arming by the state, which will increase under the PMRA.

Self-censorship is a win-win for the state. It enables the semblance of a free and vibrant press — the sound and fury that the government can tout at international fora as proof of Pakistan’s democratic credentials — all the while signifying nothing, failing to report the truth, failing to hold state institutions accountable, failing to inform the citizenry.

By resorting to self-censorship, the independent media has hidden the extent to which it is cowered from its audiences, and left itself open to charges of venality and avarice. Pakistan’s middle classes have become accustomed to criticising what they read and watch, without demanding to learn what information is being denied to them.

Journalists must remember that the press comprises the country’s public record. It is what will become history, and what will inform future national narratives. Self-censorship, by definition, leaves things unsaid, without revealing that what is documented is merely a coerced sampling of available information. By self-censoring, the media becomes complicit in the authoritarian project of coining a unified, imposed narrative about the country, its politics, its predicaments and potential.

There is a reason why our senior journalists and editors, when confronted with press censorship under Zia, chose to black out columns to indicate when the military regime objected to certain content. This let the public know the conditions under which the press was operating. And while it didn’t help people learn what they were not being told, it empowered them to understand that they did not have the complete story. Such awareness helped fuel the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, and kept the appetite for civilian rule alive through dark times.

History will view the formation of the PMRA as a low for the PTI government, confirmation of its undemocratic agenda and subservience to Pakistan’s real power brokers. But it will equally judge the media’s response to such draconian measures. Rather than be reduced to a “tale told by an idiot”, the independent media should seriously consider how it will write the story of resistance.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Dawn
About the Author: Dawn is Pakistan's oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Opinion, Politics

West Papua and its troubled history with Indonesia

Recent riots and protests are just symptoms of long simmering ethnic tensions. Protests have broken out in the Indonesian province of West Papua with a local parliament being set alight and buildings torched in Sorong, the province’s largest city. The protests, involving hundreds of people, occurred throughout the province on Wednesday with buildings set on fire, including a prison where 250 inmates escaped, and rocks and projectiles thrown at security forces. The protests erupted, in part, because of the detention of ethnic Papuan students in the Indonesian city of Surabaya over accusations that they had desecrated the Indonesian flag on its national day. But long running ethnic tensions between the native West Papuans and the Indonesian central government have plagued the province since it was incorporated into Indonesia in the 1960s. A colonial legacy After the


By Cod Satrusayang
August 23, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Fresh clashes in Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protesters clash with police, angry at lack of prosecutions after July subway mob attack. Thousands of jeering Hong Kong residents held a raucous anti-government protest on Wednesday (Aug 21) at a suburban subway station that was attacked by a mob last month, angry that nobody has yet been prosecuted for the violence. Some masked protesters clashed with police in the sub-tropical heat, spraying fire extinguishers from the inside of Yuen Long station as others smeared the floor with cooking oil to stop the police advancing. Some demonstrators blocked station exits and sealed roads outside the station, aiming green laser beams at the lines of shield-bearing officers. Others threw empty fire extinguishers at police lines from overpasses. It was the latest in a series of demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, since June against a perceived erosion


By The Straits Times
August 22, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Modi’s next move

Moeed Yusuf, the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia, writes for Dawn newspaper.  For most in Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move of revoking held Kashmir’s special status in the Indian constitution came as a shock — even if his government’s manifesto categorically stated his intent to do so. Shocking? Hardly. In fact, the move has laid to rest any pretence that Modi recognises the need to be a centrist prime minister and that his pandering to his right-wing RSS support base is only a way to keep them in good humour. Everything about his government’s demeanour over the past couple of weeks confirms the deep ideological conviction that underpins his actions. Sadly, the popular rebuttal that India’s democracy is robust enough to keep the minorities from being jett


By Dawn
August 21, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Nearly two million rally peacefully in Hong Kong

Government says while rally is generally peaceful, traffic disrupted. Protesters gathered at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Forces Hong Kong Building in Central, as well as the Central Government Complex next to it on Sunday night (Aug 18). This followed an earlier peaceful march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to Chater Garden in Central despite a police ban. Some protesters, however, turned their laser pointers on the government offices. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters lingered on Harcourt Road, prompting police to issue a warning for them to disperse. The police said the protesters had “shot hard objects at the Central Government Complex with slingshots and aimed laser beams at police officers”, posing a safety threat. Protesters there briefly surrounded a mainland Chinese man and questioned his identity after he was spotted trying


By The Straits Times
August 19, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Editorial: Draconian measures in Jammu & Kashmir

India must treat Kashmiris like its own citizens the way it claims and not alienate them any longer. On August 5, the world’s largest secular democracy decided to unilaterally dissolve the autonomy of its only Muslim-majority state and replace it with direct rule by the federal government. Eight days since, the goings-on in what was once Jammu and Kashmir, home to 12.5 million, remain opaque. The region is under curfew, with all communication and media cut and security forces on the streets enforcing a tight clampdown. Even as international media cover Indian-administered Kashmir to shed more light on the situation, India insist


By The Kathmandu Post
August 15, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong airport beefs up security as flights resume after protest chaos

Hong Kong courts declare airport occupation to be illegal. Flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airport Wednesday (Aug 14) after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Reflecting growing international concern, the US State Department on Wednesday issued a travel advisory for Hong Kong, urging “increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest.” A State Department spokesman also expressed concern about reports of movements of Chinese forces on the border with Hong Kong and urged Beijing to honor the territory’s autonomy. “The United States is deeply concerned by reports of Chinese paramilitary movement along the Hong Kong border,” the spokesman said, referring to satellite photos showing what appear to be armoured personnel carriers and other vehicl


By The Straits Times
August 15, 2019